VRI Leader: Critics haven't felt power of call-ins
When young men are introduced to Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative, trust is one of the biggest obstacles. Public Safety Director Dr. Paul Smith helps these gang members overcome that obstacle.
Thursday, January 22nd 2015, 9:14 pm EST by
Friday, January 23rd 2015, 11:13 pm EST
When young men are introduced to Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative, trust is one of the biggest obstacles.
Public Safety Director Dr. Paul Smith helps these gang members overcome that obstacle. Smith was once the principal at Howard High School. He says coming across former students is an unfortunate part of his new role, but it happens often. During Thursday's call-in, Smith knew three members as his former students.
He sees the situation as an opportunity to use the bond already built between himself and former students to steer them toward a more positive path.
“If they trust any one of us and know we are all together on the same page, our word is good. And if it was good when you were 16, it's good when you're 26,” Smith said.
Police warn a whole gang could feel pressure from officials if members of their group commit violence. State and federal attorneys back that promise through recent cases.
“Now they see that there are stiffer sentences that the feds and state are allowed to use to get right to them,” he added.
Smith understands establishing trust and a better flow of communication takes time.
“The critics are people who've never been in a call-in. No one walks away from that call-in without feeling the impact and the power of that call-in,” Smith said.
And says he isn't giving up on a group of men that have had so many fail them before.
Members from some of Chattanooga's most violent gangs met with community leaders Thursday as part of the Violence Reduction Initiative.
For the first time, Channel 3 was invited to witness the meeting called a “call-in” and is described as a powerful part of the VRI process.
Despite recent criticism, program leaders say the process is working through the relationships that are built between members and law enforcement during call-in's.
Thursday's meeting was the sixth. A new group of members attend each session. Members are ordered to participate as a condition of their status as probationers and parolees.
The violence has to stop—That was the message eight speakers echoed to 13 men known for being involved in various gangs around Chattanooga.
Public Safety Director Dr. Paul Smith led the meeting. As a previous principal at Howard High School, he sometimes sees his former students at call-ins. Thursday night, he knew three.
Members of the district and U.S. attorney offices made the consequences clear. If participants—or their gangs—are involved in violence, attorney's will make them deal with the repercussions in court. Both backed up that message with examples in recent cases.
The tone of the meeting began to change when a former gang member shared his story of losing his brother to gang violence. He now works as a mentor and public speaker for Chattanooga's VRI.
The most emotional part of the night was when a local mother described losing her son. She still hasn't found justice in finding his killer. She shook the hand of each participant. Some even greeted her with a hug. As she shared her testimony, there was a noticeable mood shift throughout the room.
As the program came to a close, members shook hands with speakers and many others from throughout the community. Some even shared their backgrounds.
Many agreed with the message and promised to help stop the violence that plagues Chattanooga.
Members are given a phone number to call for help with a variety of things like job training and transportation. That number is 423-805-8320.
We are getting a first-hand look at one of the most powerful parts of the Violent Reduction Initiative (VRI).
Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher invited Channel 3 to attend Thursday's sixth call-in where 13 men sat in the center of a room surrounded by police officers, church leaders and other members of the community.
The men are known for being involved in various violent groups throughout the community are were ordered to participate in Thursday's meeting as a condition of their status as probationers and parolees.
The room was silent as eight speakers, each with a unique background, echoed the same message—The violence has to stop.
Despite recent criticism against the VRI program, many program leaders believe the program is working because of the relationships that are built between group members law enforcement.
Tune in to Channel 3 Eyewitness News at 11 for more about Thursday's meeting.